Traveling to Scotland for the first time – tips for a perfect trip

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Scotland evokes almost ethereal images in people whether they’ve been to the country or not. Bagpipe players overlooking rolling hills and lochs, misty glens and ancient stone circles can all be seen if you want it!

I’ve experienced almost all of Scotland’s typical scenes, whether that was the sheep in the road while on the NC500 or listening to pipers when parking up at a scenic overlook on the way to Glencoe. What attracts people to Scotland over and over is definitely worth seeking out!

I grew up in Scotland but as an adult I’ve been back as a tourist and visit most years. I love helping others get the best out of the country using my diverse experience. For first timers there’s such a lot to think about so that’s where this article came in.

If traveling to Scotland for the first time is on your radar then read on for my tips for planning a trip that will tick off all of your most wished for experiences in this fantastic place!

Piper with hill and glen in the background in Scotland
In a car park on the road to Glencoe – greeted by a piper and a stunning view!

When is the best time to travel to Scotland?

Scotland is wonderful year round and each season has its benefits to travelers so no matter when you decide to visit you’ll find that there’s plenty to see and do.

With that said, for first time visitors to Scotland, I’d probably advise against a winter trip unless you’re desperate to do Hogmanay in Edinburgh (New Years Eve). Winter brings short days and a much colder experience.

If you can then late Spring or early Fall are good times to visit. Summer is extremely popular for tourism which means you’ll have plenty to do but will find it much busier too. Unfortunately all these times are when midges are around (a wee insect that can be irritating) but there are ways to avoid them.

family at Scotland border
Summer in Scotland – t-shirt weather, for now…

Prepare for the weather

The weather in Scotland can be described by many in one word – wet! So whenever you decide to make your trip it’s a good idea to ensure you’re prepared for the wet weather.

This means having plenty of waterproof clothes, layers for if it gets a bit cold and more than one pair of trousers (don’t ask me how I know!)

You can often experience many seasons in one trip or even in one day. Cold and breezy starts can turn into melting afternoons. One day you might be out in a t-shirt and shorts and the next battling a storm! You’ll want to be prepared for every eventuality!

Where to arrive in Scotland

Edinburgh is the main hub where you’ll arrive in Scotland although there are many airports around that might get you closer to where you’re planning to be. These are worth checking out if you’re also including London or other parts of England in your trip and especially if you’re short on time.

Edinburgh is a brilliant base to start your trip and will acclimatise you well. It caters well to tourists and it’s well connected allowing you to branch out and explore the rest of the country if you so wish.

You can also get to Scotland from London quite easily and quickly by train which has the added benefit of allowing you to enjoy watching the countryside roll by outside the window. Sleeper trains are a worth considering as well if you’re tight on time – they can get you to Edinburgh, Glasgow or even Inverness!

view from train over glenfinnan viaduct
You might not be able to get around ALL of Scotland on a steam train – but it would be fun!

How to get around Scotland

You’ll want to consider the type of trip you’re planning when thinking about how to get around.

If you’re happy exploring the cities and not too much farther afield then you can quite easily take public transport and taxis to get around. And if you have plenty of time and energy then getting around Scotland without a car is perfectly doable. Buses and trains cover most of the country and ferries will link you up with the islands too.

If you’re planning to explore the Highlands, islands or any of the more remote corners of Scotland then a car makes a lot of sense. While you can definitely get around just using public transport you’ll be much more restricted with timetables (some buses might only go once a day!) and so a car gives a lot of freedom.

For many people, driving around the UK is a scary prospect since we drive on the left here so if that’s a worry and you still want to explore lots it’s worth considering some tours run by private companies. Many are small groups and can take you to all sorts of places that are tricky to do by yourself.

North Coast 500 road trip sheep on road
The more remote you get the fluffier the locals!

Cities, islands or countryside?

As I mentioned previously, you’ll definitely want to think about the type of trip and experience you want to have on your Scotland trip.

You can mix and match cities with islands quite easily and the countryside is never too far away.

Island trips do require a bit more thought to plan as most will need a ferry to get there and so you’ll be restricted by timetables. They can be so worth the planning though to be looking out over the sea and watching your intended destination get closer!

Do research before you arrive about where to go

While Scotland isn’t a huge country if you want to do a lot of things in different areas you’ll want to do a lot of research before you get here. I wouldn’t recommend just arriving in Edinburgh and winging it, especially if you’re there in high season!

While the country is small the roads can be winding and can take a long time to travel on. Often times the route goes a long way around due to hills, mountains and lochs so might take longer than you think! More so if you experience a flock of sheep in the roads (although that’s thankfully not too common!)

I’d also try not to fit too much into your chosen itinerary, allowing you to go with the flow more and explore what Scottish landscape and history is on offer for you.

Being flexible is also a good idea since the weather can be so changeable. These days weather apps can be really good and accurate so you can see in advance what the weather has in store for you.

8 must see/do experiences

First timers in Scotland will want to tick off these experiences on a visit to this wonderful country!

Visit a castle

Whether it’s the imposing Edinburgh Castle overlooking the city or a smaller one in the Highlands, you’ll be able to tick this one off so easily. There are castles everywhere!

Taste the local drink

Whisky is the traditional drink of Scotland and all over the country you’ll find distilleries where you can not only taste the different blends and malts but see how it’s made.

Look for Nessie

Scotland’s famous monster, Nessie, is rumoured to live in Loch Ness which is near Inverness in the Highlands. You can go on a boat trip on the loch to really get into the spirit of searching!

Since it’s easy to get to from the small city of Inverness Loch Ness is a perfect day out even if you don’t have your own car.

Visit an island

Scotland has so many islands dotted around the coastline that it can be overwhelming to choose. Some are tiny, some are big. Almost all have a wonderful, remote vibe that are quintessentially Scottish! Don’t forget to check out the Scottish wildlife on the way over too – many dolphins and seals can be seen in the waters around Scotland’s coast.

You can even tick this one off if you don’t like ferries as the Isle of Skye is reachable over a bridge!

Enjoy some Scottish Food

There’s a lot to try when it comes to Scottish food, from the traditional Haggis and Neeps (Haggis is made from Sheep’s offal and is surprisingly tasty, Neeps is turnips!) to more quirky options like deep fried candy bars.

You’ll find that vegetarians and vegans are also well catered for in most cities too. I can highly recommend the vegetarian haggis if you can give that a go!

Go for a hike

As you can imagine, Scotland is full of wonderful walks and hikes that are suitable for all abilities.

Even if you’re restricted to time in just Edinburgh you can head off on a hike up Arthur’s Seat and get a fantastic view of the city and coast.

Find filming locations

Scotland is the base of many films and tv series that are well loved.

Harry Potter fans will want to head to the city of Edinburgh to get the lowdown on many of JK Rowling’s inspirations for the book and film fans need to get on the Harry Potter train (or as close as you can get) in Fort William.

Another recent draw to Scotland is the Outlander tv show and there’s a lot to see if you want to find some of the filming locations and inspiration for the series.

Explore Scotland’s history

Whether you like ancient history, you’re interested in the Jacobites or maybe even local history connected to some family heritage, Scotland won’t disappoint.

There are a lot of museums in the cities and also in smaller towns and villages too that will inform and entertain you.

What to know before traveling to Scotland – some other tips

  • Scotland uses the same money as England and most credit cards are widely accepted (always check if you’re using American Express as this one can be less accepted)
  • Scotland is also in the same time zone as England
  • Tipping in Scotland is not expected although is appreciated in restaurants where around 10% is the normal amount
  • Water is safe to drink and in many cases is much nicer than in other parts of the UK!
  • Drink driving is a serious offence here so if you’re planning to indulge in a tipple of whisky or visiting a distillery then you’ll want to get a taxi or buy a bottle for later.
  • Accommodation can be booked up well in advance in Scotland so it’s worth booking as soon as you can if you have your itinerary locked down. Booking is my preferred site with good cancellation policies.

Pin for later!

First time scotland pin

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 Scotland Travel FAQ 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿

Do I need insurance for traveling to Scotland?

YES! I always recommend people take travel insurance when exploring the world!

Check Travel Insurance Master for quote comparisons from different providers.

Do I need a car for visiting Scotland?

YES – If you’re wanting to explore Scotland fully then a car is worthwhile. It will get you to all the best sights and on your own timetable

I recommend DiscoverCars to compare car rental prices in Scotland

How to book accommodation in Scotland?

For hotels I recommend

For apartments and cottages check out VRBO

Will my phone work in Scotland?

Perhaps – it depends if you have roaming enabled and beware this can be an expensive way to use your phone.

If you need a SIM for use in Scotland I recommend GiffGaff which you can get and set up before traveling.

What to pack for Scotland

Keep yourself dry be prepared for any weather is my motto for Scotland! A rain jacket and comfy shoes are a must.

See my post about what to pack for Scotland

Do I need midge spray for Scotland?

YES – if you’re traveling in the summer months to any of the west coast, highlands, islands or lochs it’s recommended.

Locals swear by Avon’s Skin So Soft!

If you’re sticking to the cities or traveling in winter, early spring or late fall then you likely won’t need it.

What’s the best guidebook for Scotland?

I really like the Lonely Planet Guidebooks

Where to get flights for Scotland

Skyscanner is my first port of call for finding cheap flights to Scotland.

Do I need a visa for Scotland?

Many countries don’t need a visa for visiting Scotland as tourists (USA, Canada, Aus, NZ and Europe) – it’s always best to check first though.

Photo of author

Kirsty Bartholomew

Kirsty Bartholomew has been getting lost around the world for over 30 years and writing about it for 10 of those. She loves to help people explore her favourite places in Scotland, England and beyond. She cannot stay away from historical sites.

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